In a city where philanthropy isn’t always high on the to-do list, Julie Murray has dedicated her life to helping. She was volunteering even before she graduated from UNLV, and worked at the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation before co-founding the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which helps at-risk students graduate from high school and pursue higher education. A sobering study conducted by Eric Hilton, son of hotel mogul Conrad Hilton, about hunger in Las Vegas drove Murray to become involved in Three Square. As president and CEO, she is in charge of Southern Nevada’s only food bank, which distributed 17.5 million pounds of food to 270 nonprofit organizations in 2009. Restaurant Week, Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, partners Three Square with area restaurants willing to donate proceeds to help Three Square achieve its mission of eradicating hunger in Las Vegas.
What does Restaurant Week mean for Three Square?
It helps twofold. It brings in financial support, and in addition to providing funding, it raises awareness. Picture having someone come up to you and tell you that the proceeds from the sale of one or two items can make a difference in hunger. Even though we are grateful for the funding, we get really excited when the wait staff and the restaurant employees are ambassadors and help spread the word about what we can all do to work together to end hunger.
What don’t people realize about hunger in Las Vegas?
When we first started a lot of people said, “Why are you starting a food bank? Hunger is not an issue.” It’s such a silent problem. I’ve never met a parent or grandparent or family member who can easily say, “I’m having trouble providing food to my family.” It’s a silent problem that not many people will readily admit, especially seniors. Seniors have so much pride and there are so many seniors in the Valley that struggle with hunger, and yet for them to admit that they need help and then get help, it’s a tough thing.
What is the most gratifying aspect of your job?
It is that there is a solution for hunger. Hunger is something that impacts our bodies. When a child is living in poverty and doesn’t have access to food consistently, they may have hunger headaches, nausea, dizziness and an inability to concentrate in school. But the great thing for us is that there is a cure for it. There are 202 school sites where we’re providing weekend bags of food, and dozens of sites where we’re providing food after school, and in the summertime, and 307 sites where nonprofit agencies or churches are distributing food they’ve received from the food bank. It’s solvable, and that is the most exciting thing that I see.
What surprises people about philanthropy in Las Vegas?
I’ve always heard that criticism of our community, that philanthropy is low, volunteerism is low, that there’s not a sense of community spirit or community pride. But what I’ve seen over the last couple of years is a great level of support from every kind of volunteer, from a janitor of a company to a president of a company and everyone in between. The great thing about hunger and food banking is that there’s a place at the table for anyone who wants to support it. Las Vegas has just shown a great can-do spirit that has supported us, and it just makes me proud to be a part of the community.
How have you been affected by the economy?
In the Clark County School District, there are a little over 300,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. When we started in 2006, 39 percent of the children in the CCSD received the government’s free school lunch program, which means that’s how many children lived in poverty and qualified for the free school lunch program. Today, that number is over 50 percent. So those numbers now are 154,000 of the children in the Valley—five out of 10 need help with food.
Are there days it’s tough to do this?
At the end of a day that sometimes can be a 12 hours or longer, I still go home at the end of every night feeling uplifted and feeling that it’s such a rewarding job. It just breaks my heart to know that there would be a child or a senior or a family member in this great city of ours that would have to go to bed at night without having access to food. You hear about it in foreign countries, and right here in our backyard there’s about 250,000 men, women and children who struggle with hunger.
What are we missing in Las Vegas?
Even though we have about 5,500 volunteers here at Three Square, and the Volunteer Center of Southern Nevada has thousands as well, our state is still listed at or near the bottom of all the states in volunteerism and philanthropy. While we’re making great strides to improve, I think we have more room to grow. Over the past three years I see the community doing more, engaging more, giving more so I think we’re on a great path. What I feel like the recession has done is it has caused us all to rethink how we engage as a community. Sometimes something as difficult as the recession can inspire people to do more.